Text-Speaking in Taiwan at the Lulu Spa

Nina has the cutest pair of dimples I’ve ever seen on a teenage girl, and she’s got her black hair with red streaks pulled loosely into an adorable ponytail. She gestures toward the seat in front of her desk, pours me a warm cup of oolong tea, and points to the dressing room. Together, we look at the pictures in the catalogue of women getting hot stone massages, aromatherapy treatments, bikini waxes, and skin wraps, and we pick out the featured combination: for NTD$1999 (that’s about $60 U.S. dollars), I’ve decided to get a combination of an hour full-body relaxation massage, a hot vanilla pack pat down, a ten-minute scrub with a bristle brush, and a tea-and-cookie session afterwards. “Take off, please,” she says, and pulls out a pair of transparent plastic panties from a drawer in her desk.

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The massage room is fragrant with the scent of roses and jasmine, it is lit with candles, and there are bowls with lily pads floating on them placed strategically in the corners. After I cover myself with a warm towel, Nina pats down my body with aromatherapy oil and digs in, her hands, arms, and elbows tracing my body, kneading, padding, banging, sliding, and pressing, up and down in long, fluid motions. Almost immediately, the transparent panties come off, and she’s swiping a vanilla-scented pack over my lower back and thighs, warming me up and loosening my travel-sore muscles. She leaves the pack placed on my lower back, and I can literally feel my muscles sighing in relief as she works on my shoulders, neck, and arms. Soon enough, I’m flipped over and she’s massaging my chest (yes, all of it—this is not a modest American massage!), and applying pressures to places I didn’t even realize were sore. Then, as soon as it began, she pokes me awake and says, “Ok, lady, no more massage. Xie-xie!” and is out the door.

I dress and come out, my hair a wrinkled, frazzled mess and my mascara leaking down my face from sweating in the head rest. My legs and arms feel like jelly, and I can barely walk, and yet, I feel better at this particular moment than at any other moment on this trip (jet lag be damned!). I am smiling and blinking.

Nina is waiting for me outside with a porcelain tray with two seaweed cookies and a teacup of fresh oolong tea. She motions toward a table and places the tray in front of me.

“You very beautiful,” she says, grinning nervously and giggling like teenage girls in any culture do.

“And you very beautiful,” I say, pointing at her. I also realize, at this moment, that this girl has just seen every single nook and cranny of me. My, this is awkward.

Gaining confidence in her English abilities, she begins to creep over, inching a little bit closer with every step and visibly scanning her mental vocabulary for words she knows. “You….from?” she asks.

“I’m from the U.S.,” I say.

In a panic, her eyes wide, Nina runs to get a napkin and a pen, and pushes both in my direction. I set down my oolong tea and write U.S. in big letters. She scurries over to her friend, another nice girl sitting in her place at the reception desk, and asks her to translate. They giggle together, disappear underneath the desk, and re-emerge with their smartphones, typing furiously and exchanging messages to each other until they’re satisfied with that they’ve typed.

“Here,” Nina says, handing me her phone and smiling playfully. On the screen, it says, bold and in all capital letters beneath a jumble of Chinese characters, “I AM VERY FOND OF FOREIGNERS.”

Nina and I talk for the next twenty minutes, passing the phone back and forth and punching in messages that translate weirdly, awkwardly, and sometimes incomprehensively. But we’re having a conversation—a real-life communicative exchange!–and I’m so relieved. After all, for a girl who loves talking to people, being here hasn’t been the easiest, especially in the making-new-friends department.

“Oolong popular in your country?” she types.

“It’s my first time trying it,” I type back.

“How you like it?” she asks.

“It’s delicious!” I write. “What’s your favorite kind?”

“I don’t know,” she admits, “I like all of them! We like tea very much.”

In our time together, I learned that Nina is going to graduate high school next year, that she hopes to go to university, and that she really wants to visit New York City some day. She’s been doing massage since she was 16 years old. She’s so happy that I enjoyed her work and she wants me to recommend all of my American friends.

This just might be the closest I’m going to get to making a Taiwanese friend here in Taiwan. I type it to her, bow my head, and leave the spa.

A special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Board for sponsoring this trip to Taiwan.

Finance Lessons and Taiwanese Dollars

While I’m more or less getting used to the conversion between the New Taiwanese Dollar and the U.S. dollar, I do have my moments. One moment was this morning.

Generally, the standard conversion rate is 1 USD to every 32 New Taiwanese Dollar. Therefore, something that should cost one dollar—a bottle of water, a bowl of noodles, something from a fruit stand or a small trinket from a souvenir shop—would run about 30 NTD. From this scale, the numbers increase exponentially: 5 dollars is 60 NTD, 10 dollars is about 320 NTD, 20 dollars is about 640 NTD, 100 dollars is about 3000 NTD. Over the course of past few days, I haven’t made too many mistakes—I’ve used coins where I needed to, bills where I needed to, and I’ve been trying to be extremely diligent with my receipts (my fap-yaos) for the Bureau, and I’ve been keeping track of everything I buy and how much it costs. For those of you who know me and who are aware that I have never kept a balanced checkbook in my life would know that this is quite the accomplishment.

Until about an hour ago. We are, at the moment, in the small fishing village of Jin Shan on the northeast coast of Taiwan and Matt is doing research for an article (he’s actually catching some waves on his surfboard, which actually does qualify as valid research in this amazing field). As I have no idea how to surf and I can’t speak Chinese so I can’t take a class and I can’t interview anybody, I’m sitting in a coffee shop next door, taking pictures with his awesomely sleek D90 and wishing I knew how to operate more than the auto function, when I realize I’m thirsty and I could really use one of those delicious apple-flavored sodas—the Apple Sidra—that’s so popular here. I see a juice and hotdog stand in the distance, so I leave my bags with my server, a very kind Taiwanese boy who smiles and nods and tries to talk to me every time he comes over and leaves in utter exasperation because all I’m doing is smiling and nodding, too.

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The shop is about a half-mile away, right outside the surf shop. Tanned, buff, well-sculpted Taiwanese bodies are milling around everywhere, polishing their boards, smoking cigarettes, chatting with friends, strolling up and down the beach in their bare feet, munching on ketchup-drenched hotdogs (people like their ketchup here, I’ve discovered), and generally looking like surfers usually do: good-looking, confident, and impressive—like each and every one of them owns these waves. In a last-ditch attempt to try and fit in with this exceptionally attractive group of beach bums, I kick off my pink flats and sling my traveler’s bag over my shoulder and stroll up to the kiosk, ready to impress with my new-fangled nonverbal Chinese skills.

I see a cooler sitting in the back of a truck behind a leathery-looking Taiwanese lady who is also selling hotdogs, so I waltz over to her and point to a bottle of water on the table. She smiles, stands up, leaning on her chair for support, and pulls out the cooler. She wipes her beaded forehead with a dirty towel and holds up three fingers. Two surfers line up behind me, shirtless and swaggering, and I feel hurried, so I pull out three hundred dollars and hand it to her in a crumpled ball.

Unbenownst to me at that particular moment, I have just paid this woman at a soda and hotdog stand over ten dollars for a bottle of soda. However, instead of just taking my mistake and shoving it into her metal box, though, she starts laughing hysterically, her grin toothless and mischievous, her laugh hysterical and yet not quite spiteful. She thinks this is simply hilarious. She turns to her friends, all of whom are sitting behind her and fanning themselves with fans, papers, and towels, and starts rattling off the story in Chinese, banging her hand on her thigh and laughing like a hyena, pointing at me and shaking the money in her hand. The rest of the onlookers start laughing, and I quickly decide that I want to melt into a puddle in the sand, but I don’t want her—or the attractive surfers behind me—to know that, so I do what any awkward person in any awkward situation does: I start laughing too.

Now we’re all laughing—me, the surfers, the woman, the woman’s friends, and some kids who are playing with a kite behind her who have just noticed the scene. We’re now all in on this horribly embarrassing joke. This is exactly what I hoped would not happen when I finally struck out on my own to make a purchase by myself, and here I am.

I start to slink away, still grinning madly as if I think this is the funniest thing that’s ever happened, and the woman stops laughing long enough to grab my shoulder and point out a coin on the table. She thrusts the money back into my hand, which is now no longer just a crumpled ball but now a crumpled, sweaty ball, and looks at my purse. I take the cue.

Thirty-cents later, I’m on my way again, hurrying back on my tiptoes (pavement’s hot outside!) to hide inside the coffee shop next door until the joke has run its course. (I think I’ll stay here awhile). As I sit down and twist off the cap of my Apple Sidra, I think about what just happened. What surprises me most of all—and delights me in a way I’ve come to be delighted by everything the Taiwanese do—is that she returned the money to me. She didn’t want to take my money, like so many people in places I’ve traveled by myself would want to do. She simply got a good laugh, and that was enough for her.

I think I love it here. Laugh, and laugh well. Lesson learned.

The Emperors Are a Strange Breed, Indeed

I have recently come to the conclusion that a prerequisite to being an emperor in China is that you must have a weird quirk. The type of quirk is quite open for interpretation, but there must be something that makes you odd, unusual, and at least a little bit eccentric. Otherwise, and I say this very seriously, you will not be fit to run one of the largest, most influential empires in the entire world.

Let’s look at some examples:

While we in the West do have our dollhouses, the worldwide fascination with everything in miniature actually originated with Ch’ien-lung, emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty from 1736-1795. And a strange man he was–emperor Ch’ien-lung loved all 20,000 pieces of his precious inherited art collection SO much that he hired some poor artist to craft about a hundred bamboo boxes with identical replications of all of his favorite pieces so he could see and play with them at all times. It was quite an arduous process to go into the vault, sift through all 20,000 pieces, and lug up Ch’ien’s fascination of the moment, so the boxes were kind of a practical idea–and they inadvertently started the “everything-in-mini” craze in Asia. The curio boxes, as they’re called in English, are art in themselves, perhaps even more stunning than the mini-artifacts held within them. They’re not only an accordion-style box, but they’re also an intricate puzzle that takes time, skill, and lots of patience to learn how to properly open it (Ch’ien-lung apparently had a lot of time on his emperor hands….must have been an unusually boring dynasty in the mid 1700s?). Most of the boxes are housed in the National Palace Museum, propped open and displayed with magnifying glasses so visitors can see all the little prizes inside: jade sculptures, bamboo toys, ivory carvings…. If Ch’ien-lung had it in the vault, it was probably replicated in some fashion in a mini bamboo box. As the story goes, Ch’ien-lung spent most of his life playing with his little toys, cherishing each tiny piece and lovingly placing them back in their proper place each evening. I believe I would have liked Ch’ien-lung very much.

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A bit earlier, we have Lang Shining of the Qing dynasty (late 1600s), man who loved Chinese brush painting but who was an absolutely terrible painter (I don’t think anyone ever actually told him this–at least I wouldn’t have! Wouldn’t want to get on an emperor’s bad side) Lang adored painting so much, in fact, that he became extremely upset one afternoon when he couldn’t replicate the infamous emperor Xuanzong’s auspicious painting of the three goats, “Three Yang,” (which was painted in the late 1300s and is still heralded as one of the most accomplished paintings of the era), and so, he hired an Italian Renaissance painter named Giuseppe Castiglione to teach him to paint those goats, no matter what. Now, he didn’t want to paint the whole canvas–he JUST wanted to paint the goats (no bamboo stalks, no grass, no mountains). So Giuseppe painted the rest of the canvas in his elaborate European Renaissance style (which, as you might imagine, looks absolutely nothing like Chinese art in any way, shape, or form), and then Lang Shining went in there with his Chinese brush and went to town on recreating the three grazing animals. The painting is extremely awkward–a mashup of two artistic aesthetics that have little in common other than the fact they were both painted with brushes).

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Nonetheless, Lang’s painting was cherished by his dynasty, and he believed himself to be a very good painter, indeed. Both paintings now hang side-by-side in the National Palace Museum, and I bet you’d be able to tell whose was whose.

A special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Board for graciously sponsoring this trip and introducing me to the painful and beautiful Chinese history.